John Russell Taylor Reflects on the Legacy of CIFF Founder Michael Kutza

By John Russell Taylor | September 28, 2018 | Culture

As Chicago International Film Festival founder Michael Kutza prepares to step away after 55 years, British film scholar and longtime friend John Russell Taylor pays homage to the man behind the marquee event.

In 1965 (just its second year), Michael Kutza’s brainchild was already big news.

When it comes to film festival directors, I’ve known them all—and believe me, whatever divinities shaped Michael Kutza promptly broke the mold. Film festival directors come in all shapes and sizes, from ivory tower intellectuals to shamelessly exhibitionist showmen, but Michael is unmistakably one of a kind.

Many years ago, I asked veteran French filmmaker Agnes Varda—currently celebrating her 70th year in film—what she thought of the two guys called Gary who were then running Los Angeles FilmEx. “Oh, very charming, very charming,” she said. “Of course, if they were not selling films they would be selling soap.” Michael is the exact opposite. Though he was trained as a designer (and is brilliant at it, as the graphics of the Chicago International Film Festival constantly [attest]), you cannot imagine that he would be anything else but dedicated heart and soul to film.

Who am I to be pontificating in this way? Well, in the ’60s, when I first met Michael, I was film critic of the London Times. He invited me to be on the festival jury in 1971, and I have attended all but two of the festivals since. In the ’70s I was a professor in the film division of USC and wrote the first biography of Alfred Hitchcock, the only one written with his complete cooperation. In the ’80s and ’90s I was back in London editing the monthly magazine Films and Filming, and about half of the 90- odd books I have written are on film subjects. So, right or wrong, where Michael is concerned, I know what I’m talking about.

The thing about Michael is that, talking about him (and thousands do), you inevitably find yourself speaking in superlatives. Shyest, boldest, funniest, most serious, most modest, most demanding, most charming, most acerbic… Consequently, most maddening, most delightful of all film festival directors. I am proud to say that he is probably my best friend in the world, so don’t expect me to be cool and measured in my portrait of him. His knowledge of cinema is encyclopedic, his enthusiasm limitless. See him operating at another film festival (it was his decision early on that his festival, coming late in the year, should be, among other things, a festival of festivals, so it is interested in quality rather than exclusivity), and you realize how passionately he pursues the best in world cinema, the most exciting new talents.

If the obsession was not in his genes, it must have kicked in pretty early on. The younger son of a Polish father and an Italian mother, both successful doctors, he had a more international background than most of his schoolfellows, and has always been the most effectively cosmopolitan American I know, immediately at home virtually anywhere in the world. Though at the same time intensely loyal to his Chicago roots: His initial motivation to found a film festival was to bring the best of world cinema to his fellow Chicagoans. As the festival hits its 55th edition, he can chalk up a unique success in that area.

I have said that he is the shyest of festival directors. He is a brilliant public speaker and vocal advocate for his enthusiasms, but I think he does not believe in his own skills, and while most festival directors love to bask in the limelight, he much prefers to stay hard at work behind his desk. Genius in filmmakers both fascinates and intimidates him. (He was himself a prize-winning student filmmaker, but you have to drag the information out of him.) However, his vast knowledge and passionate appreciation have brought an amazing number of classic film stars and directors to the festival for in-depth onstage interviews, along with the cream of the crop of newcomers, many of whom were discovered by and launched at the festival (think Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Tom Cruise, John Cusack, Helen Mirren, Mike Leigh…).

Have I done justice to the glamour that hangs around Michael? Probably not. He is certainly the best looking of all the festival directors I have known, and the most impressive public figure—I think the only one in the world to have a street named after him. When he has retired from the festival, the Chicago scene will be poorer by at least one of its brightest lights.